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TOK’s Exam Survival Guide: 2018 Edition

By Daryl McKinley


Not so long ago, I was of the belief that exam results depend entirely on natural intelligence. This idea was the only excuse I needed to avoid studying.

My best friend Paul is naturally intelligent to an infuriating degree, and was easily the most academically gifted kid throughout school.

With even stronger belief than my own, Paul regularly asserts; “You’ve either got it or you’ve not”. Paul also (sarcastically) claims “If you play the lottery, there are only two possible outcomes. Either your numbers come up or they don’t. Therefore you have a 50/50 chance of winning.” While I’ve never credited the latter idea, it took me far too long to realise the folly of the former.

Sean is a university classmate of mine with a first class Master’s degree in Theoretical Physics. He once told me of how he moved schools from a state secondary to a fee-paying independent school for his crucial exam years. Pupils at the independent school were more than twice as likely to obtain five Higher passes on the first sitting, and four times as likely to obtain straight As, compared to their comprehensive counterparts.

According to Paul’s logic, this would suggest that the private school pupils were simply twice as likely to be born with the natural intelligence to get five Highers. This is when I started to doubt the validity of “You’ve either got it or you’ve not”.

I’ll save the state school vs independent school discussion for another day but for now, let me be clear that I believe that differences in exam results are not primarily due to natural intelligence, but rather mindset, and its close relative: preparation. So here’s my 2 cents on exam preparation (2 cents is equal to 1.57 pence at the time of writing – thanks Brexit).

This is intended to be a step-by-step, chronological exam survival guide. It is based partially on scientific evidence (of which I am quite fond) and largely on my meandering trial and error process (of which I am very fond).

Step 1: Make a vague study plan. Aim to study Maths for 16 hours on Tuesday with only a 2 minute break to answer nature’s call.

Step 2: Have one or two relatively productive days then get distracted. Afford yourself one episode of your favourite show for your hard work. You deserve it.

Step 3: Give in to your lazy demons and binge watch 3 seasons of that show, back-to-back.

Step 4: You didn’t deserve it. Emerge from your Netflix cave.

Step 5: Notice that you’re not sticking to your study plan. You don’t even know where it is. It’s under the coffee mug. Bin it.

Step 6: Treat this as your new starting point. Make a fresh study plan. This time round, put non-study activities in first. Make sure you have something to look forward to every day. This will make you far more likely to stick to your schedule. Then break your study sessions into much smaller chunks and be extremely specific. Instead of allocating 3 hours to ‘studying English’, break it down into 10 minute slots and specify what you aim to achieve in each segment. For example, ‘read Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet’ or ‘Answer questions 5 through 9 of the 2016 Past Paper’.

There are several benefits to this style of scheduling. Mainly, it decreases wasted time. If you get stuck on one question, you have to move on when the 10 minutes are up.  This method also lends itself to regular breaks at natural stopping points.

I’d recommend complimenting your schedule with a Pomodoro timer (such as this one which will sound an alarm when you’re due to move on to the next study point or when you’re due a break.

Step 7: Stop looking at your phone.

Step 8: Make sure you’re not just skimming your notes. You have to really test yourself. Do past papers. Don’t give in to that little voice telling you to check the solution before you get to the end.

Top students start studying with practice papers far earlier than other students because they realise that exams aren’t just a test of how much you can remember; they’re a test of how well you can apply what you have remembered. In any case, you will actually remember more by applying than by trying to remember. So start on the past papers way earlier than you think you should.

Step 9: Seriously, stop looking at your phone. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You have to wait a whole hour to see someone’s Instagram upload of their Spaghetti Bolognese “hashtag nomnomnom”? You’ll live.

Step 10: Use your imagination in your studying. Whether that’s creating stories, using colour, drawing pictures to help you remember equations or even turning a paragraph into a poem; using your imagination will make it easier to get that information into your brain.

Step 11: Test yourself on a certain piece of information or a particular topic at progressively greater intervals. This is called spaced repetition and I’ve found it works particularly well for flashcard memorisation, if that’s your thing. I won’t go into the science of it here but Thomas Frank, the ‘College Info Geek’, explains it well (

Step 12: Hold yourself accountable to your classmates. When studying alone, it’s very easy to convince yourself that you know something. Pro-tip: you don’t know it. But the best way to learn it is sometimes to teach it. Get a study buddy and agree to explain specific concepts to each other to test whether you really understand it or not. Be honest with each other.

Step 13: Fine, keep looking at your phone. But realise that in your hand you have a device capable of accessing just about all the information ever accrued by mankind, and you’re using it to watch a video of a cat playing with a fidget spinner. Shame on you.

Step 14: Use meditation and mental rehearsal to prepare your mind for the exam experience. It’s no good cramming all that information into your head if you’re going to be too stressed out to transcribe it from your brain to the page on the day. Visualising every detail of the exam day procedures before the big day will help keep your cortisol (stress hormone) levels low during the real exam so that you can perform at your best.

Don’t just work hard. Work smart.


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